After months of delay, the state legislature is pushing through significant reforms to address a crisis of absenteeism in Chicago's elementary schools. City education officials, meanwhile, say they are exploring many options but have implemented only limited initiatives.
A bill expected to reach a floor vote this week would lower the state's compulsory school attendance age from 7 to 6, putting Illinois in line with most states and giving officials leverage over parents who keep their youngsters out of class for weeks or longer. Closely related versions of the legislation have passed the Senate and House.
A second measure, which won final legislative approval Tuesday, will create a task force composed of top state and city officials to craft solutions for the early-grade absenteeism, which is especially pervasive among African-American students and those with disabilities.
Both measures were prompted by a Tribune investigation that found roughly 32,000 Chicago elementary students — or 1 in 8 — missed at least a month of classes during the 2010-11 school year, while thousands more simply vanished from the attendance rolls.
Chicago Public Schools officials last year pledged to work "aggressively" on truancy solutions, noting that the missed school days cripple the futures of disadvantaged youths and cost the district millions in funding keyed to attendance.
In a recent interview, a CPS official pledged that additional funding would be devoted to anti-truancy measures next year but said the dollar amount would not be known until the budget takes shape in coming weeks. City officials say they want an "all hands on deck" approach to absenteeism that would involve community groups and parents as well as school administrators.
A handful of Chicago school administrators currently focus on attendance and sometimes make home visits, but the district eliminated its army of truancy officers in a 1992 budget-cutting measure. Since then, CPS has cycled through more than a dozen truancy programs while collecting few if any data showing whether the strategies worked or why some failed.
Today, when students go missing, overburdened principals and attendance clerks told the Tribune that they primarily rely on a "robo-calling" system that often fails to connect to anyone because phone numbers are out of date, incomplete or not in service.
One small but promising intervention is a pilot program called "Check & Connect" that uses federal and private foundation grants to assign trained mentors to roughly 450 at-risk children in grades one through eight. CPS is in the planning stages of expanding coverage to 300 to 400 additional elementary students.
While the two-year Check & Connect program is only at its midway point, preliminary data indicate that the weekly, hourlong visits or calls from mentors reduced school absences by 10 to 25 percent among the fifth- through eighth-grade participants, said Northwestern University associate professor Jonathan Guryan, one of the program researchers. The program appeared less effective in the earliest grades, according to interviews.
Another CPS anti-truancy initiative would tap Chicago's three "re-engagement centers," where high school dropouts and truants can get help with re-enrollment or simply find a haven from the streets. CPS plans to use personnel from the centers to locate and provide guidance to an estimated 250 middle school dropouts in order to determine whether that contact gets kids back to class.
Lawmakers and community leaders have worried that Chicago's absenteeism could worsen with the closing of 49 elementary schools this fall, because many of those facilities are in impoverished African-American communities where truancy is especially high. Youths already with a tenuous connection to school will have to travel farther to attend classes, sometimes crossing dangerous gang boundaries.
To quell those concerns, Chicago officials plan to expand the Safe Passages program and place "community watchers" in the blocks around each of the receiving schools.
In grades K-8, poor attendance often stems from factors beyond the schools' control or even the child's — chaotic homes, ineffective parents and rising rates of poverty and homelessness. Authorities in other areas have found there is no silver bullet for the problem but have focused on strategies that stress cooperation among various government agencies, including police, courts, child welfare authorities and state social workers.
In Chicago, Michael Toomin, chief juvenile court judge, said he recently reached out to CPS officials and "offered to help in any way we can." There were a couple of meetings, Toomin added, but "our efforts have not been very fruitful to date."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun